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Clippings: Declining building delivered stories

It was around 25 years ago that I first became acquainted with the Middlebury municipal building at 94 Main St.
It always struck me as being somewhat of a paradox — too much building, but then again not enough, for the purpose to which it had been put to use. There seemed to more than enough space for the dozen or so employees on the main floor, but most of it was in the form of hallways and staircases leading to nowhere. You could imagine students years ago scrambling through the hallways in this remnant of the former Middlebury High School. But for a professional staff, the configuration seemed less than ideal.
Prior to covering various municipal board meetings, I’d often wander across College Street to buy a sandwich at what was initially (to me) Lyons’ place, then Baba’s, then the Blue Hen, now Sama’s Café. I’d bring it into the town office building and eat it while perched on the short staircase linking the main floor landing and the gym. The bouncing of basketballs, shouts from children at play or the barked directions from yoga/dance instructors would serve as my dinnertime diversion. Then I’d wander over to the main bulletin board to see if there were any news morsels that could be gathered from posted agendas or minutes.
I also covered Middlebury during an era when business was conducted in the lower level of the municipal building. From the College Street entrance, you’d descend the stairs to the police headquarters. In a dank, virtually windowless atmosphere, generations of Middlebury police officers typed up their reports and interviewed suspects. Officers would occasionally escort suspects up the stairway to the public restrooms, which could create awkward encounters for folks coming in to pay their tax bills. I recall many crime-related interviews with Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley that would end with him saying, “We’ve got to get out of this building.”
It finally happened, in 2004, with construction of a new police station on Lucius Shaw Lane. Townspeople OK’d that expenditure not long after defeating, by a narrow margin, a proposal to build a new municipal building and police headquarters at their 94 Main St. location.
Lest people forget, the Addison County Community Trust also used to maintain its office in the basement of the municipal building. The staircase at the South Main Street entrance of the building led down to the modest ACCT digs where former Executive Director Elizabeth Ready and a handful of employees put together affordable housing and farm conservation projects.
With limited lighting, no air circulation and an unpredictable and antiquated heating system, I bet most of the basement-cased employees wished they could have worked from home or perhaps in a less depressing setting — say, for example, in a Soviet gulag. Like the Middlebury police, the ACCT was eventually set free, and now has offices in Vergennes. Their former basement homes were relegated to storage, their memories protected at each stairwell with the same conspicuous police tape that is used to cordon off crime scenes.
When I felt really brave, I would explore the lower level beneath the gymnasium. And I’m not talking about the portion reclaimed as the Russ Sholes Senior Center and Addison Central Teens. I’m talking about the no-man’s land of serpentine, pitch-black hallways and side rooms that frequently had you looking over your shoulder expecting to see a machete-wielding guy in a hockey mask. The eerie setting was rendered even more supernatural by the occasional “clank” of the old boiler system.
Well, the old building is now unoccupied and on death row, slated to be demolished this June.
I will soon cover my first meetings in the new municipal building at 77 Main St. In terms of creature comforts, I’m sure it will be like making the proverbial leap from the outhouse to the penthouse. But part of me will miss “roughing it” at 94 Main St.
Thanks for the memories.

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